Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Blog Review: Zen Habits

Whenever I run across someone in a rut or someone talking about making changes in their lives, I always want to recommend Zen Habits to them. Zen Habits is a blog about simplifying, building good habits and enjoying life. It’s written by Leo Babauta, and chronicles his story as he changed his life in a variety of ways. His blog featured on Time Magazine’s list of top 25 blogs to read.

Leo went from an overweight man living the standard office-driven, object-driven American lifestyle to a fit, healthy, happy man who makes a living doing something he loves and is passionate about. Mostly that’s writing e-books and inspiring others to change their lives through his words and online workshops.
One of my favorite of Leo’s posts is Breathe. It begins simply. “Breathe,” he writes. “Breathing can transform your life.” It goes on to give seven examples of when you stop and take some time to breathe. I keep a print out of it pinned up next to my computer at work to keep it on my mind.

Leo has something for everyone. Whether it’s building habits, getting fit, getting rid of the clutter that fills our lives, following our passions, paying off debt or simply being in the moment, Zen Habits can touch your life and inspire you as it has, as the blog reports, over “230,000 sexy readers.”

You may have heard of the 100 things challenge, in which Leo went through everything he personally owned that wasn’t a necessity or belonged to the family and got rid of the excess. Since that first challenge he’s gone to 50 things and further, but he’d be the first say that what you get rid of is up to you. You can be as strict or loose as you want. A thing can be individual items, items in a category or both. (I, for example, consider my books and clothes categories.) The point is to free yourself from materialism. Read the blog for more details if you’re interested.

If you do head over there to check it out, in the very simple fashion that is Zen Habits you can find a convenient link that says, “Start Here.” With this link’s guidance, you can find the articles that most interest you and, if you’re like me, get lost in Leo’s easygoing tone and comfortable candor. If you have a free moment, give it a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. 

Skyrim Review. Caution: Spoilers and an F-bomb

I feel like shit this morning. I woke up with a headache and it transformed into general mehness and nausea. The edge is coming off after taking three ibuprofen but now things are just fuzzy instead of miserable. Fun.

I played Skyrim all weekend and I’m not certain that it deserves the 9.5 out of ten most critics have been giving it. I think an 8 would be more appropriate. It is a good game, and I enjoy the time I’ve put into it, but at the end of the day, I still feel like I’m playing an improved Oblivion. Skyrim is simply a natural progression of an engine and story. The history is rich and in depth and I enjoy the factions and events I recognize from Oblivion.

My first character was an Imperial thief/assassin, more or less the same character I played in Elder Scrolls VI. I completed the first quest of the “main” storyline and proceeded to wander around looking for the Thieves’ Guild and Dark Brotherhood storyline. (In three play throughs of Oblivion, I never did anything except become the Archmage, the Grey Fox and the Hand of Sithis. Each time.) At Adept difficulty, killing most things with a bow was a hassle, a time consuming event of firing a shot or two and running and hiding til the mobs decided I must have been a figment of their imagination. (I shoot magic arrows from the darkness!) I took to sneaking more often than I killed or running through when discovered until I reached a door. I suppose that’s what a thief would do. The ending of the Thieves’ Guild line was anti-climactic and I should have just kept the Skeleton Key. My new character will.

Before I go on to the new hero of Skyrim (“hero,” Shadowmere is totally worth murdering half the continent for), I want to approach the two underworld plots. Barring the details, they’re the same. Each was once a powerful group now plagued by problems. Through my actions, I brought them back to a historical position of power. In both plots, the current head of the guild betrayed my character and the void I left through their destruction was mine to fill. (This also serves to bring you to power as Archmage, by the way). It’s a little redundant and I fully expect to experience the same rite of passage to fill the already vacant position as the leader of the Companions. Personally, I’d settle for a position of respect underneath one of the leaders for once. Otherwise, may as well just make me Emperor of Tamriel as well, since I assassinated him I see no reason why I shouldn’t usurp the throne. (Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened anyway, the way things are shaping up.)

After twenty plus hours I started a new character. He’s a little more streamlined than my thief, (perhaps one of the issues with my thief character, too many points spread out instead of saving them for perks later). I created a High Elf mage, and after getting my Unrelenting Force shout, I went straight for the title of Archmage. I also turned down the difficulty after a few hours. As many reviewers have commented, magic is fun. I’ve focused in Conjuration and Destruction. I have a bad habit of not using my glyph spells, though I discovered the fire glyph is a great way to assassinate nasty old women who torture children. Did I leave that on the floor? Oh, I’m sorry about that, I should really pick up after myself.

Short of slitting someone’s throat with a sneaking dagger kill, one-shotting weaker targets with the Ice Spike spell is probably one of the most rewarding deaths you can deal. Draugr, bandit or silly mage, it’s satisfying to see their crumpled bodies with a giant icicle still buried in their flesh. I wish the forensic team luck figuring out where the murder weapon went. Fireballs and lightning bolts would be more satisfying if the corpses would smolder or twitch. No, I’m not normally this twisted, it’s just a game.

Conjuration, while immensely useful and macabre fun, needs improvement. My Flame Atronach ends up half a mile away while in the meantime I’m facing down a horde of draugr. This is inconvenient and I don’t really want to use my mana to summon another one at this point. I have similar issues with zombies. Particularly when it stands five feet away while an ice mage is face. . . uh. . . melting my toon or some bandit with a great sword is trying to find a hole in my heavy armor. Battlemage for the win.
Admittedly, with this change, I’ve not spent nearly the hundred hours the big time reviewers have and I look forward to having had a little more experience with more powerful spells and summons. The one time I used a firestorm scroll on a horde of enemies was immensely satisfying.

One other point of contention before I close. Is that a horse or a Hum V? My thief can’t climb some of these rock faces and Shadowmere or any other horse I’ve stolen just heads right up with a little wiggling on my part. It’s quite possibly the most unrealistic part of the physics in Skyrim. Don’t get me wrong, I abuse it mercilessly, but it disappoints me. In a fairly well-built fantasy world in which I can easily suspend my disbelief, I have a hard time with an equine that could climb the Matterhorn without ropes or a helicopter.

Skyrim is still a really good game. If I change my mind later and decide it’s great, I’ll let you know. For now, it’s just not quite there. Bethesda’s finest work has its moments, but it has its drawbacks too. (Let’s not talk about the glitches.) I highly recommend playing it, especially on the PC if you have one good enough. I’ll take the control a keyboard and mouse allows over the limits of a console controller any day of the week. I give Skyrim a solid 8 out of 10 and look forward to many, many more hours conquering the world.

A final note, for those gamers who think Bethesda should add a war between the werewolves and vampires: FUCK YOU.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Christianity & Morals

I’ve been thinking about Christianity and how much it irritates me again. There are rumors of real Christians out there, but I still don’t know that I know any. I still feel as though as soon as someone picks up the cross, they turn into a self-righteous, judgemental ass. Because, in spite of what that book they so readily defend says, they seem to think that belief in their God gives them the right to pass judgement and, even worse, define what is moral and immoral. That’s just downright frightening.

Morality should not be bought and paid for by promises of an afterlife. It shouldn’t be founded on tales of bloodshed and murder. It shouldn’t be symbolized by the execution of a man. I’ve experienced the “morality” of some of these people. I’ve listened to a teenage girl from a very religious family adamantly support the idea that tolerance is wrong. Her church and her parents had taught her that all Muslims are evil. She believed they should all be deported from America. I listened to her sister, who I briefly dated, tell me stories of the abuses of her oh-so-righteous father. Yet these were good, church-going Christians.

I realize that they’re not all like that. There are critical aspects of their teachings that are wonderful, common sense morality. Let’s look at a big one: thou shalt not kill. This is a great start and would be even better if the so-called religious would stop sending other people to do their killing for them. I’m sorry, but the degree of separation doesn’t keep their hands clean. Let me tell you, I didn’t lose faith in Obama when his plans didn’t work out. I lost faith when he started celebrating the deaths of our enemies. Death should never be celebrated. Even a wake is a celebration of life. The only time killing is ok is when you must kill or be killed.

The best of the ten commandments can be summed up fairly easily: don’t kill, steal, lie or cheat. They’re summed up even better by the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Which is terribly similar to the Wiccan Rede: An it harm none, do as you will.

The Golden Rule shows up many times in the Bible, notably in Matthew 7:12 when Jesus says, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” and Luke 6:31 when he says, “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” So, this being the case, I’d love to hear a few more Christian excuses as to why they will not support basic human rights like gay marriage. Not only is this a ridiculous issue, it shouldn’t be an issue. Gay marriage isn’t a matter of morality or legality and attempting to use a Christian moral structure to deny these people their right to live and love as they will is, according to Jesus F. Christ, denying yourself that right as well. Homosexuality is not a crime, and if it is, barring rape, it’s none of your business. If you’re Christian, that judgement is your God’s to make, not yours. The Christian role in dealing with homosexuality, really, any group they believe God doesn’t approve of, is to love them anyway. Or at least leave well enough alone. If you’re going to be smug and self-righteous about your belief that someone else is going to hell, keep it to yourself.

While we’re talking about hell and God and heaven and angels and immaculate conception, let’s take a look at what that implies. It implies you believe in the supernatural. That in the world you live in it is possible for some being to magically create the world. The universe. As in, abracadabra and POOF Harry Potter creates life. If you or me or anyone else for that matter went around claiming that we found a magic lamp and a genie granted us the ability to walk on water or make bread and fish multiply on a whim, we’d be branded delusional and carted off to the nearest insane asylum. It’s as if religion exists to channel our crazy just enough that we can go about normal lives. In the world we live in, surrounded by technology and scientific fact and discoveries that are constantly giving us a better definition of how it all works, why is there still a need or room for this crutch? It’s insane. Literally.

In fact, science has brought us to an era in which Christianity (and other deity based religions) are completely unnecessary. Quite honestly, it’s been unnecessary since the founding of Buddhism but now we have a secular methodology that has similar approaches without the religious trappings. There is a science of human well-being and it’s been empirically proven to fulfill the needs that have so long been the domain of religion. Jung said human spirituality was a built in part of our psyche, but I think if he were here now he would change his mind. What he recognized was our need to lead fully-realized lives. The path to that is out there. It’s just slightly more difficult to achieve.

That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Christianity is EASY. It’s so easy to stand ignorantly behind faith and tell the scientific community that the Big Bang theory is a silly view of creation. Well, the first problem with that is it ISN’T a creation theory. It’s an expanding universe theory. What this brings us to is critical thinking. Religion protects people from the terrible effort that is using their brains. While there are most certainly intelligent religious people, studies have shown that there is a direct link between religion and brain health. If you don’t have to think, question or learn, you aren’t using your brain. Much like any other part of your body, if you don’t use it, your capabilities degrade and your health degrades. For fun and non-profit, one might say that religion is obesity for the brain.

Let’s talk about how Christianity is the Borg of religion. When in it’s infancy, the Church followed the example of Rome and assimilated EVERYTHING. Rather than making those pagans stop celebrating that obnoxious winter solstice holiday, the Christians suddenly decided it was a convenient time to celebrate the birth of their deity’s mortal incarnation. His conception sounds remarkably like any number tales of Zeus coming down and playing around with mortal women. (We won’t mention the probability that Mary was LYING, either.) There are a lot of books on the origins of Christian mythology and I recommend starting with Thomas’ Paine’s The Age of Reason if you’re interested.

I could go on and on and on. Really though, I’d be more than willing to leave Christianity to its happy little delusion if its people would start having a little more respect for the rest of us. I’m not interested in forcing someone to believe or not believe. I would simply appreciate it if as a group Christians would stop treating non-Christians, non-theists, gays and any other group they’ve chosen to impose their flawed immorality on as second-class citizens. Where is the love and respect your God supposedly teaches? What right do you have to deny people life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

As I wrote earlier, morality should not have to be bought and paid for. Not to mention that it’s clear that the Christian system of morality doesn’t work. First, let’s make the easiest point: 81% of incoming inmates in American jails are Christian. (If you want a comparison .02% are atheist, but I’m not here to defend atheism.) What that statistic means is that 81% of all prison inmates have most likely in some way broken one of the commandments they were raised to respect. Their Christian upbringing somehow failed to create good, God-abiding citizens who loved their neighbors and did unto others as they would have others do unto them. The promise of heaven and the threat of hell just weren’t enough to keep these people on the right path.

Science, again, has an explanation for this. It’s all about human motivation and we know for a fact that offering rewards for good behavior and punishment for poor behavior ISN’T a successful method for motivating people. In fact, it’s been shown in experiments done all over the world that when offered a reward for any non-formulaic activity, people will perform worse than if they’re not offered one. (Which explains a lot about the atrocities performed in the name of God, if you ask me.) Morality, indeed, is quite non-formulaic. In the end, it turns out the best way to motivate people is through intrinsic motivation. People must do something because it gives them a sense of mastery, autonomy and purpose. Therefore, being a moral person is something that should be done because it is the right thing to do. Being a good person is its own reward. No system of ethics is good in which morality is not intrinsic.

This is why I find myself irritated by Christianity once again. I expect more of a congregation that follows a messiah who preached love for your neighbors. There’s a beautiful message in the Bible, if Christ’s followers would just stop fishing with a bucket. I’m irritated because I’m disappointed. Disappointed in people who can’t or won’t think for themselves, people who think that belief in an amorphous entity is a reason to judge others as good or bad and disappointed that these people are so capable of extracting the worst parts of their belief and acting upon them instead of embracing the ones that would let them welcome anyone and everyone with open arms.